The Great Fire

The fire broke out near the southern tip of Manhattan Island and quickly moved north, burning a wide swath up to Wall Street and consuming all of the buildings between Broadway and the Hudson River.

The blaze on Sept. 21, 1776 claimed about 500 houses in what was a fairly small city. The cause will probably never be known.

Because some witnesses reported seeing separate fires break out further uptown after the first blaze was discovered, arson has been suspected.

Washington had just surrendered the city to the British. Military doctrine of the 18th century would have required the Americans to burn the town rather than leave it to the British with winter coming on. Congress had specifically forbidden Washington from burning New York. Most certainly, Washington didn't.

But it is not impossible that sympathizers to the American cause were involved. In addition to purely military motives, arsonists could have had less pure purposes. Hostility to Tories could have been the impetus for helping to spread the fire, and a good disturbance in New York even then was probably an occasion for some elements of society to practice a little looting.

The British reported several summary executions, either by hanging or throwing suspects into the flames. Since there were no trials or formal inquiries, the political sympathies, motives and guilt of the suspects will never be known.

The British press was hot to blame the Americans. One account said a man who was hung by his heels had cut leather fire buckets and stabbed a woman fire fighter. Another account of the same incident said he sliced off the woman's arm.

English claims of American responsibility were so extensive and so overblown, that they show a certain desperation in the propaganda war. Perhaps the British were fearful that they would be held accountable for occupying the town and then failing to prevent it from burning down.

Circumstances favored the fire. A wooden city was at serious risk when the wind blew. Many of the people who would ordinarily watch for and fight fires had left with the Americans. The British were so recently arrived that they had little opportunity to take over the responsibilities of local government. Because they needed iron and lead to make weapons and bullets, Americans had taken all of the church bells, leaving no way for the remaining inhabitants of the city to spread the alarm.

The British were so eager to blame the Americans that press accounts even inferred that Nathan Hale, executed for spying shortly after the fire, had been an arsonist. These reports were certainly false, casting doubt on the other British claims.

Whatever its cause, the fire denied the British the use of a good part of the city and also denied posterity many of the city's early buildings. St. Paul's survived the fire, but the original Trinity Church did not.

In watching the blaze from Harlem Heights, Washington said, "Providence, or some good honest fellow, has done more for us than we were disposed to do for ourselves."